Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Promise of Speaker Paul Ryan

Published in Commentary Magazine on October 30, 2015



On Thursday morning, Paul Ryan was elected Speaker of the House.

In his 13-minute acceptance speech, Ryan acknowledged that the House of Representatives is broken – “We are not solving problems. We are adding to them.” – and offered up some procedural changes, including having committees retake the lead in drafting all major legislation, opening up the process, and returning to regular order.

Speaker Ryan spoke about the struggles of ordinary Americans, who are “going nowhere fast.” In his words, “they are not asking for any favors; they just want a fair chance.” He urged the House to get its act together, to focus on real, concrete results, and to take on rather than duck the tough issues. “We are going to do all we can so working people get their strength back and people not working get their lives back,” according to Ryan. “No more favors for the few. Opportunity for all. That is our motto.” He spoke about the high calling of public service. And in articulating his vision, he said self-government “is not only more efficient and more effective; it is more fulfilling.”

Speaker Ryan’s remarks also included this passage:

We will not always agree—not all of us, not all of the time. But we should not hide our disagreements. We should embrace them. We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated. If you have ideas, let’s hear them. I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us.

This shows a much deeper and truer understanding of the nature of politics than we often hear, doing away with the mirage that our disagreements will evaporate if only legislators did their job well; that our political conflicts are simply based on cynical partisanship.

That may well be true for some people some of the time. But that’s hardly the complete picture. People are in different parties and hold different political philosophies because they embrace different and often competing worldviews. Their hierarchy of values, the order of their loves, are not identical. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans often interpret events and reality through different prisms. These differences aren’t based on one or the other group being comprised of better or more admirable human beings; they are based in good measure on different life experiences and moral intuitions, the way we process information and the people we interact with and are surrounded by. This doesn’t mean that compromise isn’t possible. In our system of government, it is quite necessary. Compromise, after all, is part of our constitutional DNA. But it means that compromise is done in the context of recognizing and working to resolve our differences, with enough humility to know that, while some of us may be closer to the truth than others of us, the best of us only see the truth in part.

Speaker Ryan’s speech also included this paragraph:

A lot is on our shoulders. So if you ever pray, pray for each other— Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding, because—when you’re up here, you see it so clearly—wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.

Here again is admirable candor, asking not that those who see the world different than we do would fully embrace our beliefs, though that would welcome; but rather that we would have a deeper understanding of one another, and, therefore, a somewhat greater appreciation for one another. No one is naïve enough to think that, in the daily grind of politics, we will always treat each other with respect and dignity, let alone affection. Deep differences on issues provoke passionate debates, and that’s fine. The point, I think, is most of us could make an effort to cast a bit more light and a bit less heat, to show a touch of grace now and then, and to remind ourselves that the ties that bind us are stronger than the things to divide us.

I understand that in our polarized age, as we enter an intense election year, this sounds like so much high-minded nonsense. I’d only point out that the greatest person our nation has produced was able to say at the outset of a horrific civil war, “We are not enemies, but friends” — and by the end of the war would say, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the wounds.” For all our talk about how divided we are, it’s worth recalling that Mr. Lincoln lived in a much more riven and difficult time than ours. So Speaker Ryan’s words, in that context, are rather more meaningful and certainly worth aspiring to.

Let me close on a personal note: I first met Paul Ryan when we were colleagues at Empower America two decades ago. He was then as he is now: a policy wonk, principled in his convictions, wholly without cynicism, unusually well-grounded and in possession of outstanding character. He got into politics for all the right reasons. And so for those of us who have had the privilege of traveling part of the journey with him over the years, to see him become Speaker of the House, is a marvelous moment — and an uplifting one, too. Because honorable people don’t always succeed. In this case, one did.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

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